Ahead of the November general election, Dr. Ben Freeman, an investigator for the
Washington-based Project On Government Oversight, came to campus to talk about his work on the influence of foreign lobbying on legislative and electoral outcomes in the U.S.
The subject of Freeman’s Thursday, Oct. 18 lecture was largely his new book, “The Foreign Policy Auction,” an in-depth and statistical analysis of the half-billion dollar industry of foreign lobbying. The next day, The Knox Student sat down with Freeman for an interview. The following is an excerpt from that interview.
The Knox Student: What are your impressions of Galesburg so far?
Ben Freeman: It’s fantastic. I’d heard it’s a small town, old college and that sort of stuff, which was all very nice for me, coming from Washington, D.C. Anytime I can get into real, small town America, I jump at the opportunity.
TKS: Aside from your work at POGO, you mentioned that you teach graduate students. Where do you teach?
BF: I teach at American Military University. It’s basically [online courses] designed for active duty soldiers, and it kind of fills a niche. The military is great about offering educational opportunities, but a lot of soldiers can’t really take advantage of them when you have two wars and you’re going overseas. It’s tough to take classes at Georgetown when you’re in Iraq. My students are literally all over the world.
You get some of the most amazing excuses for not turning in homework, too. When I taught at Texas A&M, it was the usual stuff. … I literally had someone say “My dog ate my homework” one time. … But my current students will say something like, “I don’t know if you heard, but there was a tsunami that hit Japan, and I have to go help with that. Is it okay if I turn in my homework late?’ Or you get the more cryptic ones like ‘I’m stationed in Iraq. I have to do something. I can’t tell you about it. I can’t tell you where I’m going or when I’ll be back, but can I get an extension?’
TKS: Describe your work at POGO.
BF: POGO, in a lot of ways, kind of serves as a middleman between journalists and whistleblowers. … If you’re a whistleblower, you can call in to us and maintain your anonymity. … There really is no typical day. Sometimes, something in the news breaks, sometimes military equipment literally breaks, and we say ‘Ha! We told you those were crap. You shouldn’t buy them anymore.’ Whatever it is, we have to immediately respond.
With whistleblowers, I could be going through my day, thinking I’m going to get some of these long-term foreign lobbying reports done, and we just get a call with a national security whistleblower on the line. And then, you spend the next hour of your day just trying to figure out why taxpayers are being defrauded by this particular contractor in Iraq.
At POGO, we want to expose corruption. We want to expose this waste, fraud and abuse. But we don’t just want to do that. … Journalists do a great job, to a certain extent, of exposing these things, but then it’s over for them at that point. They say, ‘Ah! We told you. Please fix it?’ Whereas we are very actively exploring solutions to these problems.
We want to figure out solutions to these problems, and we want to see those solutions enacted. … When you ultimately see one of those issues go from beginning to end like that, it’s amazing. It’s the greatest payment, for me at least, you could ever have from a job — being able to see that we’re doing this work that changed an issue, that truly made our government better.
TKS: So POGO serves as a middleman between whistleblowers and journalists. How is your approach different than an organization like WikiLeaks, which would get a trove of documents and just distribute it? Julian Assange would meet with newspapers like The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The Guardian. How is your approach to bridging that gap different?
BF: Totally different, but very similar. Totally different in the sense that we … don’t just put out mass information. We specifically don’t put out any information that’s classified or top secret. By law, you can’t, and this is sort of what WikiLeaks is getting into trouble for. We like being in business. We like not going to jail, so we’re not going to post those things. In the grand scheme of things, you might think [WikiLeaks] is very noble, but it’s hard to really do oversight of a government from a jail cell or when you no longer have a nonprofit.
That said, we are perfectly content to post anything that we legally can. … The Pentagon is a great example. They over-classify so much stuff, and it’s a major problem. … There are things that are clearly not a national security interest whatsoever that they’re classifying. We don’t agree with that, and we think this information should be publicly available, but we’re not trying to break the law to make it available. We’re going to try to change the law [so] they don’t over-classify everything.
TKS: Describe the moment when you realized that there was, as you mentioned last night, this relationship between foreign lobbying and American foreign aid?
BF: Everybody is always conjecturing ‘Oh, money in politics, it’s so bad. They’re just bribing these guys, and they’re buying votes.’ Everybody likes to believe that these things are happening. And you hear anecdotal stories here and there about how somebody got big money and they voted a different way than they did before. … I wanted to see, systematically, is there really a pattern here?
It was like better than Christmas. It was like Christmas and your birthday and everything put together when I finally started running the analysis. … For a data geek like me, finding this stuff was like the closest thing to heaven. What I found was an unbelievably strong correlation between who [foreign lobbyists] were contributing to and who they were meeting. It’s just undeniable. … Most of the contributions they would make to an individual, they would make within a very short time period after meeting them, in some cases on the very same day.
I think it’s particularly troubling that some of [the lobbyists’] clients are really some of the world’s worst dictators, some of the nastiest folks in the entire world. … It looks, at least, like there’s the semblance of bribery going on here, too. It’s very troubling, once I found the extent of this. … It sort of hurts your feel-good about your government, but I wanted people to know. They deserve to know the truth.